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Plaistow Landgrabbers

Unemployment had been growing in West Ham since the early twentieth century, leaving many unhappy and struggling to survive. Failed efforts by the government and local authorities to relieve this poverty were causing dissatisfaction amongst many of the unemployed.

Benjamin Cunningham, a labour councillor, decided to do something about it. In July 1906, he led fourteen unemployed men to an area of wasteland between North Street Passage and St Mary’s Road in Plaistow. The land was divided into four triangles, inspiring the name ‘Triangle Camp’. By the end of the day, twenty men were working on the land, preparing to grow their own vegetables. Cunningham was named their captain and they built Triangle Hotel, a makeshift accommodation built from boards, poles and tarpaulin. After two days, twenty-five men were sleeping in the hotel. The camp gained support from others, who donated money, plants, food and entertainment. The men wanted to demonstrate that they were not unemployed because they were lazy, but willing to work if only they had the chance.

The Triangle Camp was also a chance to return to agricultural work. Forty years before, Plaistow had still been a rural village and the older men of the camp would have grown up working on the land. This all changed the industrial revolution transformed Britain, factories were built on fields, forcing people into cities. On the wall at the back of the plot, one of the men painted “What will the harvest be?” in large, white letters. However, the success of Triangle Camp was short-lived. The Mayor of West Ham wrote a letter to Cunningham stating that he would act against the illegal, forcible possession of the land. Cunningham replied in a letter claiming that it was not illegal to take over disused land that rightfully belonged to the people. In late July, police officers were stationed around the camp. However, the plan backfired as their presence attracted an interested crowd of several thousand, who donated generously to Triangle Camp.

In early August, West Ham corporation officers returned with police and attempted to clear the camp. Cunningham refused to leave and was carried away. Without their captain, the rest of the men left and Triangle Hotel was pulled down. Cunningham did not give up, however. He made multiple attempts to reclaim the land, but was thwarted by an overwhelming police presence. Eventually, he was wrestled to the ground and arrested. He was convicted of contempt of court and sent to prison for five weeks. No one knows if the vegetables were harvested, but the idea has grown and flowered.

A century later, artists Karen Guthrie and Nina Pope converted a neglected area of land into a community garden at Abbey Gardens, just over a mile away from the original Triangle Camp. The garden was set up as a place where anyone can participate in communal growing and harvesting of vegetables, fruit and flowers. The name of their project is “What Will the Harvest Be?”

Image: Courtesy of Newham Archives

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